Sometimes when you go to a place there’s a story about a mishap or a dislike or something wacky that happened, and sometimes there just isn’t. Sometimes everything works out just the way you want, expectations are met and you get to go home and feel like you did what you set out to do, saw what needed seeing and that’s just about right. It doesn’t necessarily make for the most hilarious or exciting story, but sometimes it’s really nice to be able to look back and simply think, “yeah, that was really great, just like I thought it would be” and not have to add an asterisk, caveat or rationalization.
Maybe our story won’t set your hair on fire or have you laughing with schadenfreude, but as travelers it’s really nice to have an experience that just works the way we planned and leaves us feeling satisfied. If our trip were all hijinks and mishaps we’d have to give up pretty quickly. In any case, this one is best told in pictures, so I’ll keep my prattle to a minimum.
Although we ended up loving the city in its own right, we really went to Xi’an just to see the Terracotta Army. And the Terracotta Army was nothing short of astonishing.
Over two thousand years ago 700,000 laborers worked to create more than 9000 statues for the first Qin Dynasty emperor. It’s rumored that they also built a necropolis that defies imagination, but it has yet to be opened, possibly out of fear of ruining what may be contained within due to exposure. When it was buried, the army was vividly painted, but the paint flaked off almost instantly once exposed to air, hence the fear for the still hermetically sealed necropolis.
Upon completion, the soldiers were sealed in giant, subterranean, east-facing galleries until the ’70s when a farmer digging a well found the whole mess. Archaeologists have been reconstructing the bits and pieces ever since, which is slow going considering most have been smashed into very small pieces due to repeated flooding over the millennia.
Walking into Pit One was simply awe-inspiring. Comprehending the scope of the work it took to create this army takes some pretty impressive mental gymnastics, and the knowledge that all this was created never to be seen adds all the more to my sense that our world holds countless wonders we may never see or understand, and that is pretty exciting. Getting to see something like this is simply a privilege not to be taken for granted.
Even the pyramids were meant to be seen, so the idea that such a huge amount of expense, time and resources was poured into something that was meant to be hidden speaks of a devotion I don’t quite understand, but do find very impressive. In any case, it’s easy to lose sight of just how impressive something like the army is when you don’t consider everything involved in its creation. Knowing the history and scope of this endeavor is part of what really makes the place special.
Our appreciation of the soldiers was only enhanced by how tastefully and respectfully the whole experience was handled. Apart from a few blatant (and blatantly awesome, see below) grabs for tourist cash, it’s clear that this project is largely for the edification of Chinese history and culture, and little else. I find this deeply admirable, and it’s a sentiment Steph and I wished we had seen more frequently in other parts of the country.
Before we left Xi’an for the museum we teamed up with a hostel mate and made the journey to museum together, figuring there was strength in numbers and whatnot. After we had wandered through the first area she remarked that it seemed as though the restoration crew could have accomplished far more in the last 30 years than they have at this point. Looking at the way the figures are smashed to bits, and thinking about how painfully slow it would be to simply remove the pieces of dirt-colored pottery from the earth without destroying them (let alone spotting them in the first place), I can only think that it’s amazing they found the energy to reassemble anything at all. In the building that houses Pit One you can observe the technicians rebuilding the soldiers piece by piece, and it looks like the most difficult puzzle I can possibly imagine. Seeing the time it takes just to assemble one soldier from various bits of pottery and what is essentially dust gives a sense of the devotion involved in the preservation of these heirlooms and, frankly, it’s extremely impressive.
As far as the logistics of our trip to the museum are concerned, we don’t have many tips. Hopefully your trip will be as enjoyable and straightforward as ours, as, for once, we don’t have any mistakes for you to learn from. Arrive early (preferably as soon as the grounds open) and beat the flood of tour groups and you’ll essentially have the Army to yourself for several hours. The best bit of advice I can give regarding avoiding crowds if you arrive early is to leave the museum complex (one part of which simply tells the story of the buildings housing the soldiers, which is nothing special and is a bit like a 6-year-old writing an autobiography in the grand scheme of things) for later, and just head straight to the pits. It seemed as though the organized tour groups mainly went to the museums first, so from opening time (9:00 am) until around 11:00 am we had plenty of breathing room out among the soldiers. Do see the museum though, as it’s nice and has clearly had tons of money poured into it and has a lot of neat artifacts, though that part is probably going to be rammed with people no matter when you go. However, don’t bother with the galleries that talk about the history of the grounds and the museum — they are clearly there to mollify sponsors and partners, and don’t offer much in the way of interesting information.
All in all, we loved our time with the Terracotta Army and would highly recommend a visit to anyone who is planning a trip to China. Even if we had felt Xi’an was soul-sucking (and we didn’t!) like the other Chinese cities we had visited to date, it still would have been worth our time if only to see this exhibit. It’s a fascinating and unparalleled look into the almost unimaginably vast history of China, and the respectful treatment it has received is a breath of fresh air in a country that sometimes seems bent on plowing under (or blowing up, crushing, “renovating,” etc.) anything that isn’t profitable enough. This is definitely one of those wonders of the world that is worth seeing, and for once (oddly enough) it seems as though it is only getting better as time goes by.